The first year as a stay at home mom was the hardest year of my life. And I’ve had some tough years. The most important and helpless person to come into my life relied on me for what felt like pretty much everything. Once Dad came home in the evening, that still didn’t stop. He could take over diapers and playing, but breastfeeding and “just wanting Mom,” not so much. Whoever wasn’t on baby duty had to be taking care of the rest, which meant I was constantly relying on him and him on me. An abrupt change from two independent adults just sharing their lives together.
There were so many life switches I was unprepared for that chipped away at my sense of independence. Every time I had to shower or use the bathroom meant arranging time or at least running it by the two other people in my home. Figuring out how much I could do around the house versus how much I wanted to do or how much my husband could or should do was confusing and painful to determine. I went from working in a busy office with coworkers and patients to talk to and new technologies to learn and spending evenings with friends, to conversing (in more than babble) with one person in the evening about the baby almost exclusively. When I ate, when I slept, where I went and for how long, all of those things were now not just up to me.
Independent Woman in the Making
As someone who has always been fiercely self-sufficient, I was almost out of body when I found myself hearing my therapist list different ways I could gain a sense of independence. We’d been meeting for about a year, so I could tell she was treading lightly when she spoke. Knowing it would probably rock me a little. How could this be? Everything I’d ever done was supposed to make me more independent, more sovereign over my life. At that point I should’ve be at the peak of the independence mountain, but it was like at some point I closed my eyes and upon opening them again I found myself in a strange looking valley. One where everything I had done to gain independence had made me feel only dependent and depended on.
I’ve always been called mature and independent for my age. I got a job a month before my 15th birthday. A car at 16. Moved out at 18. At 19 I backpacked around Europe for a few weeks, mostly alone. At 23 I moved two states away where I knew exactly two people (and their baby), but I had two jobs upon arrival. I lived alone with my cat until I made more friends into roommates the next year. At 25 my boyfriend and I got a place together, the first time I had ever shared a home with someone I was in a relationship with. It wasn’t that I hadn’t had serious relationships, I just valued that part of my independence. I still only looked at 2-bedrooms just in case I needed a personal space.
After 5 years, things with that boyfriend looked like things with that husband and we wanted to add to our family. We both agreed that if we were going to have kids we wanted one of us to be home with them full time.
I had a successful career in the optical field and had worked my way up to managing a fantastic practice in lively downtown. The hours were long and late, though, and I was generally pretty drained from giving it my all. My husband’s job in the tech industry, on the other hand, was flexible, had more room to grow, and frankly brought in more income without depleting all of his energy.
I also had a lot of outside work interests that included gardening, cooking, hosting dinners and guests, and doing all of the car and home repairs I could manage despite being renters. When I didn’t have the time or energy after long work hours to change the brakes on my car myself for the first time, I knew I wanted to move from being Office Manager to Home Manager.
We slowly worked my hours down until we were living off one income as we waited three years to become pregnant. My last day of work was a week before my due date. “You’ll be back!”… “Maybe when the kid(s) are in school.”… and “Of course I’ll be back!” were said a lot. But I knew deep down I had no intention of returning to work in the foreseeable future. Working full-time from the time I was a teenager had made me independent, but now leaving that I thought was the key to true independence.
Hello, Baby! Goodbye, Independence?
All of these decisions. All of this hard work to make myself independent of needing my family back in Missouri, a second income, childcare, and even a second vehicle had actually led me to feeling the furthest thing from independence.
I thought independence was answering to no one and taking care of yourself. Now here I am answering to someone very small but very demanding 24/7 and having to send calendar invites to my partner anytime I want more than 30 minutes to take care of my basic needs, let alone a basic want. Having one vehicle (another conscious decision) meant that if we wanted to schedule baby yoga, swim lessons, or go to story time across town it had to be on my husband’s work from home days. It felt like my independence, as far as leaving the house anywhere more than a few blocks away, was limited to Tuesdays and Thursdays before and after naps times.
And I intentionally created this situation? It’s not that I was wrong about those things making someone independent, but I’m finding that if I stick to the definition I’m missing the bigger picture that I never would have seen without becoming a stay at home mom.
That independent woman my single mother raised and I ran with didn’t disappear because her family made the calculated decision to live off of her husband’s income rather than her own. And no switches were flipped because she became a mother. I made the choice to entwine my life with my family’s. I’m still the only one actually responsible for my own well being and happiness and I’m still rocking it. Honestly, I’m probably better now at taking care of myself more than I ever have been BECAUSE it’s a lot harder.
To make it to a yoga class with a friend I can’t just decide at the last minute, throw in some contacts, and hop on my bike. Now, I first work to find a time that works for my husband, myself, and my regular yoga partner. Months prior I worked with our one income to create a budget that allows for a few drop in classes a month. Earlier in the week I make sure the meal plan includes something easy and account for it when I give my husband the weekly shopping list. That evening I make sure anything my daughter needs from me she gets before I go and despite what some may assume, her strong attachment to me actually means she’s fantastic when I leave her. Sure that could look like “I can’t just do what I want,” but I can, it’s just more work. Something I’ve been great at for a long time and can tap into those skills I’ve been honing since I was a kid.
New Ways of Defining and Finding Independence
Looking around, I can actually see lots of ways that I’m more independent now than ever. Sure, I felt pretty independent on those long bike rides in my twenties when no one knew where I was and I had no agenda for getting home except to get enough sleep before work the next day. But, I definitely felt way more powerful after installing a child seat to my winter bike and getting my sixteen month old to wear a helmet, then physically getting us to the library four miles away with a park stop on the way.
[First bike ride success!]
I used to navigate the downtown bus system like it was an old friend. Missing bus after bus from miscalculating how long it takes to get a baby out of the door alone when you have to carry everything you both need, while trying not to get there too early because it’s either ten below or she’s feeling particularly independent herself and doesn’t want to be constrained to a carrier or stroller for more than ten minutes, made me feel like I would never feel independent without a second vehicle. Over time though, I got better at those calculations, the baby got more familiar with the process, and we’ve successfully bused to friends’ houses, kid friendly cafes, and sometimes just to some place I want to go.
After my daughter’s first birthday I started my own blog and volunteered to write for Twin Cities Mom Collective. Yes, I have to schedule time to write or squeeze it in during naps, but it’s something I do just for myself and besides a few deadlines, is completely on my terms. Chores and projects tend to benefit the whole family which is great, but doing something just for me and maybe my readers is really therapeutic.
Finding Ways to “Take off” for a Bit
I’m cooking dinner and realize we’re out of garlic. I could make do or send my husband, but it’s a perfect way to get a break and take way too long picking out a drink or snack from the cooler while I’m out. If my daughter falls asleep as we’re rushing to make it home by nap time, I take the opportunity to slow down. There’s no point in rushing now, so I either hop off the bus at the next coffee shop or hit a drive thru and get myself a treat I won’t have to share. They’re small, but concentrated moments of independence.
I say yes to almost anything I get invited to that is extended to just me. My daughter loves getting to splash her dad from the bath for 45 minutes anyway, so I might as well go see an old movie at a vintage theater nearby. Or take a stroll around the lake with a friend and let it be a leftovers or snacky dinner night.
Sometimes, everyone else just has to deal. I’m generally the sole putter-to-bed-parent, which is very controlling of my schedule. Occasionally I have something I need or want to do badly enough that I make Dad and Daughter figure it out without me. Maybe that means he gets her to take a nap by taking a carrier walk around the neighborhood. Maybe she just stays up an hour late one night out of a hundred. I’m letting myself take advantage of flexible mornings instead of feeling guilty for the rare occasion our routine is disrupted. The two of them throw me enough curve balls, I can throw them a gentle one here or there too, and everyone is more than fine.
[No car? Rain? Late bus? Can’t stop these independent women from their coffee shop playdate.]
A Season for Everything
When I don’t find a solution to the feelings of constraint or being not totally in control, I try to remember that things are very temporary and to stay present. Someday I’ll be able to climb a hill on my bike without an extra thirty pounds on the back, but I’ll simultaneously miss that child bike seat and hearing “Whee!” as we start the descent. Going to a yoga class will be a lot easier in just a few years, but I won’t come home to someone running as fast as they can down the hallway with a huge smile and hug for me. Getting dinner on the table and dishes done in the same night won’t require huge amounts of coordination by two busy adults and a cooperative toddler, but then it won’t feel like such a win either.
I agree with what some of my working mom friends say, that I am a better mom because of my choice. The independence I used to know will return, but I’m guessing it won’t feel the same. Later, when I think about the times that made me the strong, independent woman I am I don’t think I’ll look back to those solo weeks in Europe or when I signed my first car loan after a promotion. I’ll remember when I was a stay at home mom sometimes making independence more challenging because it was what was best for me and my family, and finding out what I’m really made of.